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Feature Fri Jan 04 2008

A Chicago Vegan in Utah

Article by Chris Brunn.

Big cities like Chicago and San Francisco come to mind when I think of eating out vegan style. Small progressive cities are good, too. Take Asheville, North Carolina: number one in PETA's list of America's Best Vegetarian-Friendly Small Cities. In Logan, Utah, I didn't expect much beyond our own vegan family cooking. Maybe there would be accidentally vegan fare like hash browns and grits at diners, burritos at Mexican spots, pasta, and the occasional Indian restaurant offerings.

My family and I spent our first Thanksgiving in Logan after one of us moved there for the university. Set your expectations low enough and you're likely to be pleasantly surprised. A large chain grocery store stocked vegan frozen tamales from a Salt Lake City spot called Rico's, an Italian spot almost had me with gnocchi, and Salt Lake City overflowed with vegan food, even at the airport.

Squatters Pub is in Concourse C of Terminal 2. Their menu calls out items that are vegan, or that they'll make vegan on request. Look for a green diamond. The chickpea patty of their vegan "Love Burger" was made in their downtown location. The thick patty - with sunflower seeds, water chestnuts, rice and oats - felt tender soft and looked a grilled golden brown. They served it on fresh hearty flour-dusted bread with hummus, lettuce, tomato and either crispy, airy tortilla chips aside a biting salsa, or with potato chips if you'd prefer.

Why was this cozy wood paneled airport restaurant bar so vegan friendly? I asked our server. She casually responded inquisitively with something like, "Socially aware?" and because "we're with it?" Their Corporate Executive Chef Eric Bell sits on the board of Utah Slow Food. At least five items besides the Love Burger popped out as veganizable. A fresh veggie wrap held tofu scrambler, cucumber, greens and red onion. Their Buenos Dias Burrito of black beans, house salsa, olives, tomatoes and onion (skip the cheese for vegan) was offered with tofu scrambler instead of eggs. Edamame hummus used tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil, while garnished with roasted tomatoes, and Kalamata olives (skip the feta), accompanied by carrots and celery or tortillas. For something simpler, they had Mediterranean salad with Kalamtas and pepperoncinis, and various bagel flavors.

A red diamond on the menu meant an item was either vegetarian or available vegetarian, bringing yet more choices into the picture, like their house made granola (available with soy). They used paper coffee cups with for here orders, but the disposable spoons were made of sugar cane. Our server told us not to leave them in our hot tea too long or they'd get bendy - despite looking thick and sturdy. We walked to our gate and I grabbed a Cliff Bar from the newsstand for later.

Downtown Salt Lake City, we ate at Sage's restaurant. It looks like an old cozy house. I think we ate in what used to be the dining room. I banged my head against with great force against a fireplace's mantel after getting excited about how excellent my rich and hearty Magical Wok coconut curry was. My dad ate a tasty taco dish and brother a stroganoff, but what really shined was dessert. Russian tea cakes crumbled with a rich texture and dusted soft sweetness of powdered sugar on the lips. We got a second one for free with my head pain. Tiramisu felt as smooth as could be, with a thin layer of fake cheese that might pass for the real thing - or at least said the non-vegan vegetarian at our table. I restrained myself from eating beyond my means, but that sanity was almost no match for the tiramisu's deep, gentle richness and the tea cake's crumb.

One morning we had rolled up to Addicted Cafe for vegan breakfast sandwiches. I heard that this music venue / coffee house hosted an un-turkey Thanksgiving. I saw a skateboarder come in for a coffee and walking directions to the skate park across the expressway. We waited for the one person working the counter to slowly fix our meals of breakfast sandwiches of faux meats.

In Logan, some eighty miles from Salt Lake City, my family went out to a fancy Italian sit down called Le Nonne. Vegan isn't typically a problem for Italian so long as you stick to pasta and veggies, but fresh gnocchi without egg seems nearly always to be a stretch. Heidi Swanson's 101cookbooks.com tells of an Italian mother's eggless recipe of three ingredients: starchy potatoes, salt and a touch of flour; but admits, "eggless gnocchi are very tricky to get the hang of, very delicate to handle." Given my perspective, I'd see that as a challenge, especially considering Ms. Swanson's instructions on fading out the use of eggs if desired. Despite our server initially thinking the kitchen could blow my mind with fresh vegan gnocchi - I remember him telling us everything was made fresh - it was finally deemed not possible. I was back to pasta with plenty of red sauce, skipping veggies this time in order to get an unblocked taste of their savory, sultry sauce.

One day before we drove to a giant alpine lake in the sky an hour and a half away, I needed a breakfast to hold me there and back. French toast came from my ad-hoc vegan batter of soymilk, a dash of salt and cinnamon, plenty of brown sugar, and enough chickpea flour to thicken until just a little runny. Such a batter thickens up when you let it sit a few minutes and sometimes needs extra soymilk to loosen. I mixed into the batter the excess oil that pooled in a groove around the edge of a hot pan. When a flick of water from a wet finger sizzled, I dipped thick bread slices we'd cut from an un-sliced loaf, put them on the pan and heard them crackle. The tops looked a bit dry after a few minutes and I peeked at the bottom. They were nice and brown, so I scraped the firm spatula in underneath and flipped them. The other sides soon became golden, and then it was time for the next batch.

My brother had been cooking frozen hash browned potato patties in another pan, searing each side and cooking until they were all nice and toasty on the insides. We drove with full stomachs to 8,100 feet up a windy two lane road through the middle of canyons that followed a river until we turned down a clear side road we'd been told would have certainly been closed for snow. Several switchbacks behind us, a small alpine lake stood calm amid tall evergreens on snow covered rocky hills at a place I heard was named for the wealth townspeople used it to picnic, Tony Grove. Back on the main road and further along, a rest stop opened up to an eighteen by seven mile spread of Bear Lake below us - a turquoise-blue high-mountain lake, thinly veiled with what was left of clouds so high, surrounded by waves of mountain tops into the horizon.

The return drive to Logan was long enough to stir my stomach for a lunch. I had frozen vegan tamales and burritos on my mind since we had found them in a large chain grocery. My brother steamed them for 25 or 30 minutes until their cornmeal felt like it was melting on my tongue. A small taste of freezer burn on some corn kernels was an insignificant downside. Rico Mexican Market in Salt Lake City had handmade them from a simple but long ingredient list: water, chipotle peppers, masa (stoneground corn masa, trace of lime), onions, sweet corn, vital wheat gluten, garlic, soybean oil, salt, soybean flour, cornstarch, white bean flour, garbanzo bean flour, tapioca flour, soy sauce made from soy and wheat, yeast flakes and vegan broth. Rico Brand's Wheat Meat Black & Red Bean Burrito wasn't quite as inspiring, perhaps due to my haste in microwaving the poor thing. It tasted of such potential, just a bit soggy in typical microwave fashion.

Soon I was back in Chicago, hungry again and bustling down the Blue Line towards Damen for a stop at Sultan's in Wicker Park. Just a week away and I'd forgotten how it felt to be stimulated by this city. Six Corners seemed teeming with people and food options. Sultan's creamed lentil soup couldn't have gone down smoother. An order or rice and beans covered in Jerusalem salad felt incredibly hearty and tender. I was happy to be eating familiar vegan food. Logan and Salt Lake City are not home to me, but also they don't totally miss the vegan thing. If you look carefully, you're likely to find what you want.

Photo by Bob Brunn.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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